Anna Vivian Jones describes how the new Curriculum for Wales could educate a new generation of multilingual young people.
In response to international surveys and reports by Estyn (the Welsh education and training inspectorate), Wales embarked on a process of education reform to raise standards and deliver a curriculum that is fit for purpose in the 21st century. The new Curriculum for Wales will be taught in schools in Wales from September 2022 up to Year 7, and then it will be rolled out year by year until it reaches Year 11 in 2026.
From the perspective of language learning, the new curriculum provides exciting opportunities for schools to approach languages from a different perspective, which has the potential to foster a new generation of multilingual young people in Wales.
Languages, Literacy and Communication: the vision of the four purposes
What is unique about this curriculum is that it is purpose driven. This means that the emphasis shifts from what learners know to the individuals that they will grow up to be. The teaching of the new Curriculum for Wales will be divided across six Areas of Learning and Experience (AoLE) - each of which must be regarded, not as an end in its own right, but as a means to enable schools to realise the vision of the four purposes. All learning should support learners to become:
• ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives
• enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work
• ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world
• healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.
All languages will be integrated into a single Area called Languages, Literacy and Communication. It’s not difficult to see how this Area of Learning and Experience will help learners progress towards these four purposes, because the aspiration of Languages, Literacy and Communication is to nurture learners who:
• are confident users of Welsh, English and at least one other language, and who have the skills and curiosity to be lifelong language learners
• are proud of their Welsh identity, embrace a bilingual Wales and enjoy cultural and linguistic diversity
• understand that languages lead to a sense of belonging and are the key to understanding other peoples and communities in Wales and the world.
The first steps towards realising the vision
The first step for schools is to realise that the linguistic landscape in Wales is becoming increasingly diverse, and quite complex in some instances. The Welsh-medium secondary sector provides us with examples of this. For instance, there are schools in north west Wales where 99% of the learners come from Welsh language backgrounds. If you travel to the south east, however, you will find that 99% of the pupils there don’t hear the Welsh language at all outside school hours. The variations, even within one sector, can be enormous. In addition, there are schools in Cardiff, for example, where three quarters of the pupils speak neither Welsh nor English at home.
So, the starting point for teachers in this Area of Learning and Experience is to identify the linguistic landscape of their school so that they can design a curriculum that meets the language needs of their learners.
A new approach to language learning
As new thinking about language learning emerges nationally and internationally, so too does Curriculum for Wales invite us as practitioners to reflect on a new approach to language learning.
Here are five of the key principles of this new approach which underpin the learning in this Area, and which will enable learners to progress towards the four purposes.
Firstly: while languages have tended to date to be taught as separate disciplines, Curriculum for Wales brings languages together. The most important thing to bear in mind about this Area of Learning and Experience is that it is based on the assumption that any form of learning in one language – be that developing vocabulary, grammar, skills or an appreciation of literature – can support learning in every subsequent language. Bringing every language together in this way emphasises the importance of transferring information, skills and understanding from one language to another.
Secondly: this curriculum requires learning about languages. Ensuring that the message about how languages work is consistently shared across this Area will facilitate the progress of learners in every language. There is an opportunity here to foster a better understanding of languages by building on the similarities, connections, as well as the differences between them. We also see that learners are interested in the origins and evolution of languages, and also enjoy learning about the place of Welsh in the story of the languages of the world. It’s also important that they understand that languages adapt to the requirements of society and that they too, as learners, can be a part of that evolution by being creative with their use of language.
Thirdly: the key concepts for learning in each Area are embodied in statements of what matters. The statement in Languages, Literacy and Communication ‘Languages connect us ’ leads us to focus on relationships. Developing an understanding of the relationship between language and culture and between language and identity will be a crucial aspect of preparing our learners to be citizens of Wales and the world. The opportunity to reflect on their own relationship with languages will enable learners to develop a positive image of themselves as users of those languages. One boy in Year 9 at a local school recently said , “I don’t speak any languages, but I am learning Spanish in school and I’m pretty good at Welsh”. How wonderful would it be if, through this curriculum, he could take pride in his varied relationships with these three languages; and say instead, “I speak three languages: firstly English, then Welsh, then Spanish”.
Fourthly: although many primary schools are already introducing a third language, learners will now be required to demonstrate progress in that language. Schools will need to consider which language they choose and why. We must also remember that we’re not just adding a third separate language, but rather adding a new layer of language learning to an already bilingual context. Therefore, beginning the process with what the learners already understand about languages will be vital.
Finally: new skills appear in this curriculum. We are very familiar with the usual language learning skills of listening, reading, speaking and writing, but what about the skill of negotiating two languages? The skills required to bridge between languages, namely mediation and translanguaging, appear in our Area of Learning and Experience. Although the children and young people in our schools mediate and use translanguaging skills instinctively in their everyday lives, learners will need to show progress in these skills in Curriculum for Wales. There is also an opportunity here to include other languages such as community languages, sign languages and other forms of communication, which will ensure that this is a wholly inclusive curriculum.
These key principles make Curriculum for Wales relevant, ambitious and contemporary. It invites practitioners across the Area of Languages, Literacy and Communication to work together to imagine a new future for the learning and enjoyment of languages by their learners. And the question we all need to ask is not ‘How will it be if we do things better?’ but rather, ‘How could it be if we did things differently?”